Fringe Review: "In Absentia" (Episode 5.02)

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<i>Fringe</i> Review: "In Absentia" (Episode 5.02)

“They’ll pay for what they’ve done, I promise.”-Peter Bishop

What a difference a week makes. While there is still a sizeable quality gap between the Fringe of old and the new status quo of season five, episode two of this young season made enormous leaps forward compared to the premiere.

Interestingly, this week’s episode began in exactly the same way as the premiere, with the beginning of the Observer invasion. However, this time around we get considerably more detail (and dialogue), and I won’t be surprised if this is a scene we see many, many more times. I think this is a very obvious statement by the creative team that whatever other mysteries may crop up over the course of the final dozen episodes, the key enigma of the season is going to be related to that scene. Questions already abound. What happened when everything went white? Why can’t they find Etta? Did the Observers pick that particular moment to start their invasion for a reason? Where was Etta in the time between the invasion and when our heroes were frozen in amber?

If we get answers to even half of these questions I will be impressed, but at this point I’ve come to accept that I get considerably more enjoyment from the myriad of complex mysteries that Fringe presents than from the solutions.

I’m still a bit bothered by how linear the storytelling is, but there was an energy and snap that I felt was sorely lacking last week. Primarily I thought the premiere mishandled what was essentially a transplant of our main characters into a new series. We go where they go, both literally as they move through the plot, and emotionally as their journey comes to an end. There seemed to be such an emphasis placed on establishing the “world in peril” stakes of the new season that the writers forgot who the characters are. These are, after all, people that have seen the weirdest and wildest threats to mankind imaginable. This week, thankfully, some of the humor and energy is back and it makes all the difference. Walter in particular seems to have gotten his mojo back and sets the tone with at least half a dozen zingers. I’m not sure we’ve ever seen Walter having so much fun.

I was also happy to see that the scavenger hunt motif has been resurrected after it seemed to be prematurely snuffed out last week. I think it’s a promising motivator as plot machinations go, and it gives the audience a built-in timeline to measure where we are in the season arc. My only concern is that it could lead to an even more predictable plot structure as the season continues. Time will tell.

As I said before, the acting this week was miles better than the premiere thanks to a desperately needed injection of humor and improved pacing. However, there are still some trouble spots with the most glaring being Etta’s ongoing blandness. The writers tried to make her more interesting this week by turning her into a morally gray torturer, but I’m not sure simply shifting her character between shades of gray is a recipe for success. You can tell me that it’s gunmetal, not charcoal, but at the end of the day, gray is gray. Plus, her whole attitude of moral superiority based on the idea that Peter and Olivia are new to this world doesn’t really hold water. Those two have seen more new worlds than they can count and their moral compass has never wavered before. It all just seems contrived and unnecessary to me and so when progress happens, like Etta’s decision to let the Loyalist live at the end of the episode, it rings hollow and feels forced. I put part of the blame on the creative team for not coming up with more interesting material, and part of the blame on Georgina Haig, who seems pretty bored most of the time. It does her no favors when she’s asked to do the majority of scenes with guest stars who seem very, very invested in what they’re doing. Eric Lange as Gael Manfretti was a surprise and a delight, and I found myself hoping that we see more of him in the remaining episodes. Hopefully he won’t become the next in the growing list of interesting side characters that Fringe introduces only to abandon (more on this in the closing thoughts).

With two hours gone, the table appears to be set and it’s time for the real action to start. The return to the Harvard lab was a nice touch, and I suspect it will only be the first sentimental reunion that we see as things wind down. It’s a positive sign that the folks who make the show recognize that it is as important to find the right emotional ending as it is to find a satisfying end to the storyline. Fringe has always leaned heavily on locations that have emotional resonance and I hope that returning to the lab is the first tick on a list that must include the Statue of Liberty, the lake and, most importantly, the other side.

Some closing thoughts:
-Ghostbusters was added to the sci-fi homage list this week. Walter’s amber-cutting laser (as well as his and Astrid’s joy in using it) was a direct nod to proton packs.

-Sadly, Fringe hasn’t always known what to do with its smaller characters, which is unfortunate because there have been some dandies. One of the exceptions is Edward Markham, book store owner and Olivia Dunham obsessive who was brought back in last week’s premiere to good effect. But sadly, for every Markham there is a Sam Weiss (the creepily wise bowling alley owner) or Henry Higgins (the cab driver played by Andre Royo who aided Olivia when she was initially stuck in the alt-universe). Hopefully, Manfretti will be the exception and not the rule.